Justice News

Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the City of Portland, Ore., Press Conference
Portland, OR
United States
Thursday, September 13, 2012

Good morning. It is wonderful to be back here in Portland. I am honored to join Mayor Adams, Chief Reese, and my colleague U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall to report on the results of our investigation of the Portland Police Bureau, and to discuss the road ahead. Today is an important and exciting day for the people of Portland, and for the dedicated men and women of the Portland Police Bureau.

I would like to thank Mayor Adams and Chief Reese for their cooperation throughout this investigation. When we announced our investigation, Chief Reese observed that this is a “unique opportunity to be at the forefront of best practices.” You correctly noted that Portland is not the only city that is addressing the difficult issue of providing police services to people with mental illness. Mayor, you noted at our announcement that you were “humbled in the knowledge that we don’t have it all figured out.” Both the Mayor and the Chief expressed an understandable and well-founded pride in your police department, and pledged their complete cooperation. They delivered on that pledge, were consistently responsive to our document requests, maintained an open door and open file policy throughout our site visits, and have been very receptive to our feedback. I would also like to thank the officers of the Portland Police Bureau for their cooperation and feedback. Our job is to make your job safer and more rewarding. Finally, we are very grateful to the community. We held a town hall meeting, conducted scores of interviews, and listened and learned from so many community members. Your perspective was and continues to be critical, and we will continue to seek out your views.

As a result of the cooperation we received throughout the investigation, we made remarkable progress in record time. As U.S. Attorney Marshall pointed out, we have completed our review; we have diagnosed the problem; identified its root causes; and have reached a preliminary agreement with the city of Portland and PPB, which will remedy the problems and enhance both officer and public safety, while allowing PPB to be at the forefront of best practices.

As U.S. Attorney Marshall outlined, for more than a year, the Justice Department has been conducting an in-depth investigation of PPB’s use of force, with a particular focus on its interactions with people with mental illness or in mental health crisis. Our review was prompted in large part by the high number of officer involved shootings of people with mental illness. The investigation was driven by a single goal: to ensure that Portland is served by an effective, accountable police bureau that controls crime, respects the Constitution, and earns the trust of the public it protects.

Our investigation was exhaustive and was conducted by department attorneys, investigators and subject matter experts, including police practices experts and a psychiatrist who specializes in working with law enforcement to develop models for effective interaction with people with mental illness. We conducted a thorough review of use of force by PPB officers, which included reviewing thousands of pages of documents, and conducting extensive outreach to the community, through hundreds of interviews with community members, mental health service providers, city officials, PPB officers, supervisors and command staff. We looked at a range of police interactions, including encounters with people who have mental illness or were perceived to have mental illness. Let me focus on the problem we identified. Based on our review, we have concluded that, while most uses of force were lawful, there is reasonable cause to believe that PPB is engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force against people with mental illness, or those perceived to have mental illness. We found that encounters between PPB officers and persons living with mental illness too frequently result in a use of force, or in a higher level of force than necessary. We further found that, when dealing with people with mental illness, PPB officers use electronic control weapons, or tasers, in circumstances where the use of tasers was not justified, or deploy them more times than necessary. Finally, in situations where PPB officers arrest people with mental illness for low level offenses, we found that there is a pattern or practice of using more force than necessary in these circumstances.

It is important to reiterate that the challenges we identified here are not unique to Portland. Police work has transformed dramatically in recent years. One Portland officer described how years ago, encounters with people who have mental illness were few and far between. Today, it is a daily occurrence for most officers, and often occurs more than once per day. Communities across the United States are wrestling with how to deliver police services to people with mental illness. We have seen and are working on these issues in other communities and believe that the work we do here in Portland will serve as an important guidepost for communities facing similar challenges.

Let me next turn to root causes. We conclude that deficiencies in policy, training and supervision contribute to the problems we identified. These underlying deficiencies have existed for many years, and precede the tenure of Mayor Adams and Chief Reese. While they did not create the problems, they own the problems, and they have accepted ownership of both the problems and the solutions. They wasted no time in beginning the reform process. A number of critical reforms are already in place. When we presented our findings to them, we immediately pivoted to brainstorming and problem solving, even though they did not agree with everything we found.

As a result, we have reached a preliminary agreement with the city and PPB about the path forward. We have developed a blueprint for sustainable change that will enhance public safety and officer safety, ensure constitutional policing, and enhance public confidence in PPB. The blueprint, which we are in the process of memorializing into a binding, court enforceable agreement, will require PPB to do the following:

·          Develop state of the art policies and protocols for interacting with people who have mental illness or are perceived to have mental illness;

·          Dramatically expand its capacity to provide services to people with mental illness by expanding its mobile crisis unit, establish a mental health desk at the Bureau of Emergency Services so that 911 calls are properly funneled to the appropriate response team, and assist in leading efforts to increase community mental health treatment options, such as 24 hour walk-in centers and other facilities that expand options for police officers seeking to assist a person who is experiencing a mental health crisis;

·          Revamp and expand training related to crisis intervention and use of force;

·          Enhance usage of its early warning system to better identify officers whose actions may require review;

·          Ensure that effective supervisory and accountability systems are in place to review use of force; and

·          Create a mechanism for ensuring that community stakeholders and front-line officers have a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on critical reforms.

Before we finalize any agreement, we want to go back to the community and hear from them again, and hear from other key stakeholders, including police officers. To all who have weighed in during this process, I recognize that this is your agreement; this is your department; this is your community, and we want to ensure that your voice is heard.

I am very excited about our blueprint, and look forward to hearing feedback from key stakeholders in the days ahead. Our goal is to complete our work in the next month.

I am acutely mindful of the fact that this agreement alone will not solve the problem in its entirety. Our findings take place against the backdrop of a statewide mental health infrastructure that has a number of key deficiencies. The absence of a comprehensive, community-based mental health infrastructure means that front line officers confronting a person experiencing a mental health crisis frequently have only two options: take the person to jail or the emergency room. In communities across the country, the largest mental health facility is the jail. That isn’t right. People in mental health crisis are sick, and generally don’t belong in jail. The largest mental health facility in a state or county shouldn’t be the jail. Officers must have additional options, and people in crisis must have additional options. We have worked successfully with other states, such as Delaware, to build a comprehensive community based mental health infrastructure. As the United States Attorney mentioned, we are working here in Oregon with state officials in a constructive, collaborative fashion on the development and implementation of a holistic, community based mental health infrastructure that, when implemented, will enhance both officer and public safety.

Our formal findings in this case are focused on PPB’s interactions with people who have mental illness. While the bulk of our investigation focused on this area, it was not limited to this area. A number of additional concerns were brought to our attention. While we did not make any formal findings regarding these additional concerns, it is impossible to ignore the tensions that exist between PPB and certain communities of color in Portland. Last year, Mayor Adams noted that one reason he welcomed our presence was his hope that this would lead to improved relations between PPB and Portland’s communities of color. We heard consistent and serious concerns from across the city that members this community, particularly the African American community, believe that they are subjected to bias stops and force based on their race. Although these tensions predate Chief Reese’s tenure, they persist to this day.

Our agreement with the city will begin to address these important issues in two ways. First, the new policies, procedures, training and accountability surrounding force will help ensure that unnecessary and unreasonable force is eliminated. Second, a community body will be created to monitor the agreement, collect feedback from the community and provide recommendations to PPB and the department. The mechanism for community engagement and input that we are creating as part of this resolution will not be limited to mental health issues. Rather, it is deliberately designed to create an opportunity for dialogue and action between PPB and communities of color.

Considerable work lies ahead. Change is not easy. Change requires time, persistence, partnership, a sound plan, resources, effective leadership and sustained community engagement. All the ingredients are here in Portland. We have made great progress. I am very confident that we will achieve Chief Reese’s goal of placing PPB at the forefront of best practices. Portland is a great community, and when these improvements are fully in place, it will be an even greater community.

Updated September 17, 2014